"In environments where extrinsic rewards are most salient, many people work only to the point that triggers the reward— and no further. So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading." — Daniel Pink
"Before taking this class the only thing that was important to me was getting an A. But, after I learned more about your teaching philosophy, I realized how stupid that was. If I only worried about getting a good grade I could miss out on so much valuable information. Instead, if I concentrated on learning the material, I found that I could absorb the knowledge and do well at the same time." —Kelsey C, student
Grades externalize and distort student motivation.
One of the central tenets of doing school is that academic success means getting good grades, as opposed to experiencing genuine, meaningful learning. Grades become valuable for their own sake, and a student’s motivation is altered, sometimes profoundly, and often unconsciously. She may be driven to cut corners or even cheat to accomplish the goal of getting good grades. Whether she is achieving the course’s learning goals is often irrelevant to her.
If you doubt that, ask yourself this question: “If there were no grades, would your students work as hard or learn as much?” If you’re like most teachers, the answer is almost certainly “no”. And your students probably agree.
Even for academically successful students, grades have a corrosive effect on motivation. Academic materialism can cause “good” students (and their parents) to be confused about what matters in school. It can foster priorities that drown out a student’s desire to learn for the sake of sheer curiosity or the urge to know something new.
Grades embody a power structure that distorts the relationship between teacher and student.
Grading is commonly (though often unconsciously) used by teachers as a means of exerting power over students. In its most overt form, grades can be used to reward and punish behavior. Even when grades are used more subtly, the teacher is still “giving” grades to the student. We say that the student “earns” points; what we mean by that is that points are a reward for successfully doing what the teacher has asked the student to do.
The obvious downside to teachers doling out grades is that it externalizes the motivation to learn. A less obvious downside, however, is that it continuously and ubiquitously enforces a sense of powerlessness in students. We don’t often speak of the power structure in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. It is the sea in which we swim.
Any hierarchy of power has real human consequences. Grades can be used to punish students who are, say, disobedient. The use (and abuse) of this power contributes to an adversarial relationship between teacher and students.
Grades are a limited, simplistic form of feedback.
It goes without saying that feedback is a critically important part of the learning process. As we have seen, feedback gives the student the information she needs to make decisions about what to do next, what still needs to be learned, and whether she is ready to move on to the next topic. Feedback can come from many sources, including the teacher, fellow students, parents, or even a computer.
Grades, in the form of a number or a letter, are a sterile and not very informative form of feedback. A student doesn’t really need to know that she only got 73.5% of the answers right to know that she hasn’t mastered the material yet and has more work to do. To be meaningful, feedback must be much more nuanced and personal. Useful feedback informs the student of the specific mistakes she made, includes a discussion of what misunderstanding caused those mistakes, and provides a direction to remediate the misunderstandings. Grades, in and of themselves, are simply too crude a tool to do that essential work.
Grades are an ineffective means of communication.
Grades are often considered an important mechanism for communicating with parents and others about a student’s level of academic success. For the reasons listed above, it should be clear that grades by themselves aren’t a very sophisticated way to do that. A poor quarter grade may be due to low test scores, which may due to too much incomplete homework, which may be due to a drop in motivation, which may have to do with the student’s social life or sleep deprivation or any one of a number of psychological or physical problems. Sending a C- home doesn’t inform the parent of what the problem is in a subtle enough way to be truly useful.
Grades are arbitrary and subjective.
In basketball, a goal is worth two points unless it is shot from a specific distance from the rim, in which case it is worth three. These are the rules of the game. We know that someone made up those rules and we accept that it is an arbitrary definition. Grades are similar. The difference between a B- and a C+ is that one is a little above 80% correct, and the other a little below. Clearly, this is as subjective as the number of points a basket is worth, but we pretend that in the case of grades that we are talking about an objective reality.
When you create a grading system, you set a value on certain characteristics, like neatness or writing all the steps in a proof. Another teacher may start with a different set of priorities and come up with a different grading scheme altogether. There is no right or wrong about this, and when we act as though there is, we undermine our students’ belief in the authenticity of the grading process.
Grades are self-fulfilling prophecies.
People used to believe in medicine men or witch doctors who could heal or condemn with a curse. Modern, educated people dismiss these practices as mere superstition, but even today, words have real consequences, particularly when spoken by people with power. The link between belief and health, for instance, is unquestionably a real factor in the effectiveness of medicine. When a doctor declares that a condition is terminal, this often condemns the patient to a state of hopelessness which can have a profound effect on the body’s ability to recover.
What does it mean to be a “C student” or an “honors student”? The link between belief and the capacity to learn is as profound and mysterious as the link between belief and physical health. A “D+” is a voodoo curse, and not just for the student. When a teacher sees a student as a failure, her actions toward the student are shaped by that belief. It’s not healthy for anyone, and it is one of the most serious impediments to learning for many students.
Hopelessness is self-fulfilling, and failing grades induce hopelessness.
Grades sort students into better and worse learners.
By definition, our current use of grades requires some significant number of students to be unsuccessful academically. We profess that we want everyone to be successful, but what would really happen if everyone got A’s? Wouldn’t we have to “dumb down” the curriculum to accomplish this? How would colleges be able to select the “right” students? Most of us can’t imagine not sorting students by academic success, so when we say that we want all students to succeed, we usually mean that we want to see fewer D’s and F’s.
Grades make it difficult to imagine a learning environment where everyone is truly successful. They condemn teachers and students alike into becoming cogs in a sorting machine.
Grades distort a teacher’s priorities.
For starters, every hour spent grading is an hour that isn’t going towards some other activity that might be more useful for students (say, developing a new lab activity or preparing a more sophisticated lesson plan, or even getting some much-needed sleep). Furthermore, the inevitable struggles over points, particularly with “good” students, places the teacher in a role of mean-spirited withholding and creates power struggles where none need to exist. It is frustrating when you want to help a student understand what she got wrong on a test and instead you find yourself arguing over points. It forces both you and your student to focus attention on something which is much smaller and more superficial than whether the student has mastered the material.
Grades interfere with student-teacher working relationships.
Points invariably create a distance between teacher and student. When we are arguing about how many points something is worth, we are no longer on the same side, with the same goals. The adversarial posture that students adopt about how many points they should receive undermines the healthy working relationship that is based on mutual trust and respect. Conversations about learning are replaced with legalistic wrangling over points.
Minimizing the corrosive effects described in the sections above requires rethinking the meaning of grades. Here are some ways to reconsider their function.